Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Bottom Line

[This should be my last post for a while on American life].

The Bottom Line

Now that financial regulation is looking like it will pass the gauntlet of Congress and politics, I'd like to share a few simple thoughts drawn from the writings of my teacher, and friend, Swami Kriyananda, and especially from his dynamic course, Material Success and Happiness through Yoga Principles.

The idea that we can take our savings and invest in the stock market and make money by doing absolutely nothing creative or participatory is not a far step from superstition, or gambling, at best. Trading on the efforts of other people is just shy of exploitation. Now, don't worry, I know the basics of investing as much as most people. And it could be said that my savings represents MY energy and investing it represents putting my energy into action cooperatively (as capital) with those who contribute their time and creative efforts.

The problem with saying that "I am earning my return, too, and legitimately" starts with one's intentions and ends in the overall or macro effect of millions of people doing this and the combined effect of their intentions and actions. Investing in a stock, e.g., brings no current capital to the benefit of the creative and productive efforts of that particular company. Your buying and selling is simply among other people like you, hardly different than gamblers assembled on the casino floor. It is true that have an active and liquid market for stocks enables and facilitates the raising of new capital for ventures, but the former outpaces the latter by a huge margin.

These days you can trade or bet on just about anything, perhaps even the weather, through the stock markets. With electronic trading and borrowed money and the terms of investing in certain types of hedge instruments, you can go wild with speculative trading. It is this "something for nothing" and gambling pyschology that is, ethically and pyschologically (and "karmically"), hurtful to both individuals and society. (Adding to it the consumerism that has given rise to mountains of debt and we have the makings of a "perfect financial storm.")

I seriously doubt the new regulation amounts to much of anything. You can't legislate greed and the scheming that greed incites. If the act of regulated investing, nationally or globally, were re-directed and restricted to discourage speculation and encourage long term investing (of savings, not borrowed money) we might achieve far greater stability. Too much human creative and energetic capital is, I believe, invested in the financial markets around the world. The riches sought and produced by this giant industry is nothing less than obscene. If the industry can be reduced in size by half or even two-thirds, back to a dull, conservative "invest-for-retirement" purpose in relative simply-to-understand stocks and bonds, the markets could return to their most socially beneficial function of raising capital for worthwhile public (both governmental and corporate) ventures. Such would stabilize jobs, new technology, and the proper act of saving for retirement. Only those who have "long" holdings in certain commodities or stocks have anything legitimate to hedge. Mortgages shouldn't be bundled and sold unless the issuers remain primarily responsible for their collection and who legitimately raise funds by essentially borrowing (not selling) against their mortgage portfolio. Limits on size and incentives to be localized, serviceful, and involved with local communities or regions should be imposed. Global movements of capital should be cooperatively regulated to minimize speculation and rapid turnovers.

Similarly with basic investing: short term and rapid turnovers should be taxed or otherwise regulated in favor of true investing that sees in a company a long-term (well, medium term at least) positive potential.

Of course none of this will happen. So, instead I favor and encourage us to look to the creation of new communitiy investment vehicles where people who know each other or at least live in the same area and share common ideals can invest their savings in worthwhile projects of mutual benefit.



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Age of Energy

Dear Friends,

I'd like to veer back to the mainstream of American life. The basis for my thoughts lies in the perception that humanity has been steadily transitioning from a tribal consciousness towards a self-actualized consciousness. I won't dwell on the objective basis for this but I would like to state simply that advances in communication, health, education and travel are the result of and in turn have stimulated the creative thinking, dynamic energy, and heightened awareness of millions of individuals to seek a better life.

Consider all the various "freedoms" for which people have struggled, and even died for: freedom from racial prejudice, religious freedom, social injustice, economic freedom, gender equality, to name a few. Steadily throughout the world it is as if, over the last few centuries (and at an accelerating pace), people all over the world are "waking up" to their personal identity and their potential as individuals. This constrasts with the medieval or tribal mindset that our station in life is fixed by birth or circumstance (not merit), that privilege and power is inherited or appointed, and that we must fulfill our duties according to our superiors or tribal elders.

The world wide web both symbolizes and epitomizes the latest form by which information and knowledge is being made available to the general public as part of a process that has been taking place for centuries. With growing awareness and the power of technology has come both increasing compassion and instances of wholesale destruction and genocide. I would venture to speculate that, in time, compassion will grow faster than destruction, even if, by necessity, it will do so only after great suffering.

Paternalistic attitudes, such as reflected in colonialism by the Western powers, are a hold-over from the medieval mindset of monarchy and hierarchy. By this I mean the idea that the rulers or elite must look out for the interests of the unfortunate, uneducated masses who in turn are expected to serve their masters. Charity and relief work have steadily moved towards greater sensitivity to the needs of people served and away from a sense of "we know best what you need." But an awkwardness remains in the act of dispensing charity by governments and large organizations. It is the awkwardness of potential judgment, pity, and the dehumanizing impact of large scale administration of charity with its legitimate needs to assess eligibility and enforce its conditions in an effort to steward its responsibilities to the general citizenry.

Western nations may vary in the degree to which their respective governments provide health, education, and welfare benefits to their more needy citizens, but it remains a fact that the worldwide financial recession threatens to curtain their ability to continue at past levels. Thus a crises is pending whereby new approaches to social benefits may need to be tried.

I question whether charity can ever be dispensed appropriately by a government. Caring is something individuals do for one another. The relatively high level of social benefits offered by many governments creates, by necessity of administration, a culture and attitude of entitlement. No matter how loudly we may insist that every citizen has a "right" to health care, legal defense, food, or shelter we cannot mask the equally true reality (one that we take pains to teach our children) that one must take responsibility for his own actions and their consequences. No matter how much we proclaim that "all men are created equal," the fact that individuals possess a remarkably wide range of talents, energy, and atitudes shows that if this platitude has any meaning at all, it must be in the sense that we are all children of God. Reward and punishment, and truth and consequences still rule the affairs of men. To ignore the individual in dealing with people is to court failure in one's communications and joint efforts.

It seems the more societies spend on social benefits the greater the need becomes. Past a certain safety net that a society insists upon for the sake of compassion or guilty avoidance, the result must be to sap the dynamic will, initiative, responsibility, and self-respect of those whom it helps. The consequence will inexorably be to foster resentment, blame, and greater demands by those demeaned (by handouts) in a subconscious and collective attempt to affirm individual self-worth.

Individuals respond to poverty and hardship in many different ways. Some do only what they have to in order to get by. They may not even mind, especially, living in conditions others would find intolerable. Their plight may be due to injustice, abuse, a sense of hopelessness for lack of opportunities, lack of education or simply unawareness of other possibilities. For some, blaming others, including society at large, can be an excuse not to make an effort to improve oneself. For others, it might also be a mere matter of familiarity, or a habit based on the exigencies of day-to-day survival. Some even become quite clever at surviving and self-protection. Others strive arduously to improve their lot, such as parents who work hard to send their children to school and higher education. Some, though probably not as many, set about helping their fellows cope with such circumstances. A rare few become shining examples of peace and goodwill, bestowing their quiet inner peace and comfort upon any who would receive such gifts. Such straitened circumstances can bring out the best, and the worst, in human nature.

In this age when individuality, with its concomitant potential for self-initiative, self-improvement, cooperation, and compassion, is in the ascendant, it makes sense to me that government-provided social benefits emphasize and encourage self-help. Education and training (in all aspects of living, not just academic) is one of the greatest examples of how a society, through its government, can improve the standard of living of its citizens.

Why is it, then, that we bemoan a steady deterioration in the quality of that education? Is not the well meaning but blind emphasis on giving everyone the same quality of education resulting in no one getting a decent education? It strikes me, for example, that notwithstanding the obvious reasons for doing so and the good intentions behind it, that bussing children to school and providing meals via subsidized cafeterias robs parents of basic responsibilities and participation in their childrens' education and life. Though I don't know the facts it is easy to imagine that the cost of just these two aspects of social services alone is enormous and that such funds might be better employed in improving the quality of education itself. For that matter, why is education compulsory anymore? Imagine schools filled with children who actually WANT to have an education!

Obviously some families may need help to get their children fed and to school. Wouldn't this be more sensitively done in cooperation with other families and with local service organizations? Would the not cooperation needed to help families on the ground level of their neighborhood help build more viable and compassionate community? Bussing and meals is just one example. It may be an imperfect one. But I have no doubt there are others.

If the central government provided overall guidance, training, and standards for charitable work and perhaps some facilities or other infrastructure but let local organizations to work out the details and solicit funds from their various interest groups or communities, the results could only be an improvement to everyone.

Whether seeking job training, finding work, or taking responsibility for one's health, the equation for success for disadvantaged citizens is a combination of personal effort and appropriate opportunity. The ratio of self-initiative to straight charitable handout will vary widely, but it strikes me that governmental assistance should focus primarily upon people who want to improve themselves. Let charities focus on helping those who are essentially helpless or who have potential but need personal training or motivation tailored to their circumstances and tied to individual effort. For the latter, government can still have a role in funding and guiding such efforts, but it should leave the caring to caring individuals (presumably part of some NGO, local government, or community based organization).

We live in an age which some call an age of energy. It seems so obvious (as we seek new and rewewable energy sources, struggle with fatigue, memory loss, and the demands of the fast and complex pace of modern life), that helping people cope with these demands is the best social service a government, representing the will of its people, can offer. Let charity be the domain of the charitable and let charity be fostered and encouraged at all levels of civic life. Lastly, the individual is the core motivating energy behind society and improvements to society. To ignore Individual consciousness is to ignore the seed of life itself. One size will never fit all! Let us foster creativity, talent, leadership, and compassion in individuals and we will all benefit.



Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Divine Mother!

Creation is our Mother in the form of nature. God, through the power of intelligent vibration, has created and sustains the universe, and is seated at the still heart of all flux. In celebrating Mother's Day, let us include God as Mother, housekeeper of creation. The Bible tells us that God gazed upon His creation and called it good! We, too, should celebrate the manifest beauty, power, and intelligence in all nature, and, most importantly, witness God's loving presence at the heart of all things and all beings.

Endowed with God's desireless desire to create and the intelligence to do so, we are "like gods." The intelligence streaming out from the heart of infinity begins to stretch like a rubber band until it begins to assert itself separate and apart from Divinity. This outgoing force is called "maya," the measurer, or the satanic intelligence and power. It manifests in the larger sphere of creation, and in the hearts of men. Individuality is compelled to seek continued existence, to perpetuate that existence, and to enjoy its existence.

The delusive and suffering-laden consequences of this process are in no way, however, a condemnation of the glory of creation and of God's presence within it. No matter how "far" it seems we may go from our Oneness in Infinity, God remains our sole substance and only reality. Regaining our glory as children of God is a matter of reestablishing our contact and identity with our divinity which, as Jesus put it, "is within you."

In the New Testament story of Martha and Mary, Jesus Christ reprimands Martha for her fussiness (in the kitchen), saying that her sister Mary had chosen the better part (sitting at his feet, quietly, communing with her Lord). But Jesus was not telling her to get out of the kitchen (after all, he was probably going to get a meal from the deal)! Rather, he was saying that when we are active and serving, we should be mindful, joyful, and acting as an instrument of God's power, calmness, and wisdom.

In this stressful culture of America, we have much to gain from daily meditation and from bringing the peace of meditation into daily life. Breath breaks, mental "japa" (silent, inward devotional chanting), and attitudes of joy and servicefulness can make work a meditation, and meditation the divine work of seeking God.

Blessings to you!


Is Trade Free?

I'd like to walk in a different park today than meditation and spirituality--have a change of pace, perhaps.

Our country and this world face so many challenges and changes it's difficult to make sense of what is happening, what to mention what we think should happen. Seeing the paralysis in the U.S. Congress even in the aftermath of a sweeping victory by Barack Obama and despite his party's control of the Congress, makes one wonder how this nation (what to mention other nations working together) will ever make the substantive changes in economics, attitude, lifestyle, and ecology that are required for life to survive on this planet..

Over the years, perhaps like you, I more or less accepted the doctrine that free trade was good for America and good for everyone else as well. But with the trade deficits, government deficits, real estate foreclosures, personal, corporate, state, and municipal bankruptcies, I have come to the conclusion that when free trade is neither free, nor trade, it can't be good for anyone!

Trade is not free when its consequences destroy entire industries, cause widespread unemployment, or wreak devastation on whole cities and regions. Trade is not free if it exploits people who earn so little that they are virtually enslaved, trapped in a subsistence cycle of work that is unhealthy or otherwise unsustainable and humanly degrading. Such people have no voice, no rights, no practical means to meet their basic needs.

Trade is not free if its environmental consequences are devastating. Though hardly devastating, even just the example of flying in apples from South America to Washington State is like both carrying and burning "coals to Newcastle." It seems wasteful. Trade is not trade when it is not equal because one party has nothing to trade in return but simply goes further into debt. The result is an ever mounting debt spiral that ties both debtor and creditor into an economic tailspin. Trade is not trade when it enriches the rich at the expense of ninety-some percent of everyone else.

I have said many times and in different contexts, and no doubt have many others, that sustainable living goes far beyond not harming the environment. Trade may indeed be "free," meaning markets can be accessible to the conduct of worldwide business, but not without some basic and sustainable parameters or solid basis.

The mature economies such as America's should have sufficient internal production and productivity that we do not rack up trade deficits unendingly month after month. A growing and quickly maturing economy like India or China should, in their turn, attend to the infrastructure and consumer needs of their own people. Trade among us can then be built upon sustainable and balanced economies and can be truly an exchange of goods and services of equal value.

Nations whose primary productivity takes the form of natural resources are already in an unbalanced economic situation. Building for them a healthy economy is not so easy. This goes beyond my subject but I would simply say that if the income they earn from their exports cannot find its way back to their nation in the forms of imports that are useful, relevant and which contribute to at least a long-term greater self-sufficiency, it would seem better for them, at least, to reduce such exports. Easier said than done and, as I say, a different subject. In the case of oil exporting nations, a reduction of supply would certainly add further incentive to consuming nations to work towards greater energy self-sufficiency. In the end we'd all work towards economies that are more sustainable.

The imbalance between mature economies, developing economies and subsistence economies of course fuels the migration of people from the latter to the former. Again we therefore have an issue of unsustainability as witness the current (and long-running) controversary around immigration to America. Balanced and sustainable national and regional economies can benefit all nations.

Coming back to America, it would take some courage and political will to reinvigorate domestic manufacturing and production back to sustainable levels. This is because such steps would appear to be anti-free-trade (superficially but still symbolically) and would probably have to include, among many measures, some degree of "protectionism." Hopefully incentives and cooperation can lead the way and punitive or restrictive measures can be avoided or minimized. Communication and cooperation with those nations who think they depend on exports to America would be of utmost importance.

One way or another, and admittedly, mostly the hard way, America and other nations in a similar unbalanced debt and trade position, will be forced to re-balance their economies. Why not do it intelligently and efficiently, and avoid at least some of the pain and humiliation of bankruptcy and worse.

Look forward to some other thoughts on the financial industry. Blessings, Hriman